Santa Catalina (Panama)
Santa Catalina has a population of around 300 people and an expat community of about another 50 people. Most of the townspeople speak only Spanish.
Cell reception is excellent with Movil, however Claro and Movistar are sketchy. Internet access is now available in some hotels, but it can be slow. There are no ATMs however credit cards are now accepted in a few places including the grocery store and La BuenaVida. Be sure to pack enough cash.
There is one internet cafe outside of town limits, about a 20 minute walk up the main road. Some hotels offer free Wi-Fi internet use.
Santa Catalina is accessible via a single road from Sona. The asphalt road from Sona to Santa Catalina is well maintained however is curvy. It is NOT recommended to drive there at night since cows, dogs or other unexpected "traffic" can be quite dangerous.
A local bus runs 6 times a day between Santa Catalina and Sona for a cost of $4.65 and takes around 1.5 hours. As of January 2015 the timetable was: 5:30am, 8:40am, 11:20am, 1:35pm, 2:40pm, 4:45pm. Note that this bus may leave within ±15minutes of its scheduled departure time, depending of the number of customers.
The San Isidro bus line connects Sona to Panama City, at a cost of $11 and another 5 hours of travel time - there are 6 daily departures, 8:20am, 10:20am, 12:45pm, 2:20pm, 4:20pm and 5:45pm (correct as of January 2015, but a good idea to call ahead to confirm departure times). These buses are slightly older, but still have a/c and are perfectly comfortable. They do not have onboard toilets, however, and don't make a rest stop. Another option from Panama City is to take a Santiago or David-bound bus, get out in Santiago and change to a bus to Sona.
From David, Boquete, or Bocas del Toro take a bus from David to Santiago terminating at the bus terminal next to Los Tucanes restaurant (US$9 - any Panama City bound bus will stop here, even expresso), then change bus terminals to Terminal de Transporte de Santiago (The main bus terminal which is a 10-15 minute walk) to catch the bus to Sona (US$2.10, 1hour).
Taking a taxi from Sona is a little faster than the bus, but costs $40 (negotiable).
On foot, one can walk the entire town including both beaches in about 2 hours. There are two major roads that intersect at the town center which allow access by car.
Both beaches, Playa Estero and the smaller one at the end of the major road through the town are idyllic.
As one may gather from the hammocks strung up on nearly every piece of property, the primary pastime in Santa Catalina is chilling out. This is not a party town.
There is excellent surfing here too.
There are three great breaks that will suit the needs of any surfer. Definitely head by La Buenavida and ask Mike what's firing off, or stop by Hotel Santa Catalina and check out the surf at the point directly in front of their "Pescao" restaurant which offers a perfect view of the surf, and direct access to the paddle out channel, plus they have the Santa Catalina Surf Shop on site with sales and rentals of surfboards, foam boards, body boards, and all surf gear, surf clothing and surf accessories.
Estero – Rivermouth best surfed at medium to low tide
La Punta – High tide is best…mostly because of the sharp volcanic rock which can be very shallow. Only for advanced surfers.
Punto Brava– Should be surfed only at low tide. This spot is very tricky to get in and out of the break. Wear reef booties if you have them. Otherwise, walk down the end of Playa Estero, and up over the rocks then down about 100 meters further, then leave your shoes or sandals up on the rocks, and walk over to the large rock point, you can enter the break either to the right of the rock, or through the small channel to the left of the rock. Be careful with sea urchins.
Reef booties are a must if you want to surf the points, and be ready for a gnarly entrance across shallow reef to get to the outside.
Nearby Isla Coiba offers world class scuba diving with excellent opportunities to see white tip reef sharks, dolphins, turtles and a huge variety of other species. Some of the best snorkeling and diving in Panama is to be found here. Note however that a few weeks every year, around februari/march, visibilty can be reduced seriously due to very cold deep ocean currents. It can be as bad as 3-5 meters, rendering your dives into a 45 minute concentration game upon the fins of your divemaster. Also, diving is rather expensive. Expect to pay $140 for a two tank dive, excluding the park fee, another $20 (march 2017).
Places to visit around Santa Catalina:
- Hicaco beach Only seven kilometers from Santa Catalina, back in direction to Sona, there is a nice little fishing town called Hicaco. Coming from Catalina, turn right at the police station and follow the road (gravel) till the end. Leave your car up on the bluff and walk down to Hicaco beach that stretches for several kilometers in direction to Punta Brava and the open ocean.From here you can even walk back to Santa Catalina, its a beautiful hike along the coast. Bring water and only go during low tide hours, it is approx. 3,5 hrs of walking!
- Lagartero beach Only ten kilometers from Santa Catalina. Turn right (coming from Santa Catalina) at the Hotel Hibiscusgarden sign and follow the gravel road down to the beach. Nice for swimming with the high tide, incredible horse back riding, beach combing and bird watching with the low tide. Not one single house on the whole stretch of beach (9 kms) except the Hotel Hibiscusgarden. This beach is perfectly suited for kite surfing (in the dry season) since its north/ south direction and features perfect and consistent side shore winds with speeds around 15kts.
- Arrimadero beach Instead of going right at the crossroads in El Tigre (in direction to Sona), turn left (coming from Santa Catalina)and follow the new road to Playa Banco and Playa Arrimadero,the latter one of most beautiful beaches (yellow sands, clear water)you can reach by car in the whole area!
- Golfo de Montijo islands Several islands of varying sizes offer incredible fishing, birding and other leisure time activities. Cebaco (panamas 3rd biggest island) is world famous for sport fishing.
- Horse back riding Enjoy nature from the back of a horse. Trips can be arranged via "Hotel Hibiscusgarden",
Santa Catalina has one tiny store in the middle of town which sells random toiletries, canned goods and produce. Hotel Santa Catalina has the Santa Catalina Surf Shop on site which offers a variety of surfboards for rent or for sale, plus surf gear, surf accessories, and surf clothing.
Fresh produce is sold off of trucks which can be a welcome midday snack, and fishermen gather by the mango tree to sell their daily catch.
Breakfast and lunch may be found at a couple of the hostels and at Buena Vida Hotel. Mike and Michelle run the Hotel, and it's a great place to find out what's what.
Pescao Restaurant at Hotel Santa Catalina offers a hearty breakfast, lunch and dinner in a nice ambiance with ocean front views of the surf, and an infinity pool overlooking the point break, plus a play park for small children, free ping pong and free WiFi internet.
Los Pibes Argentinian Steakhouse for burgers and Pescao Restaurant or Chano's Point for seafood. All 3 have a chill atmosphere, cool tunes and frosty beer. Dinner without alcohol should not cost you more than $20 including an appetizer.
Donde Vianka which is by a beautiful surfer named Bianca, who makes a wicked hot sauce that is a natural accompaniment for the ceviche.
And also check out the Hibiscus Garden hotel & restaurant exactly 10km outside of town towards Sona, and they do an excellent dinner for a very reasonable place. They also have good accommodations on the beach (not really great surf) and run a shuttle to town. Owner Mick is a famous river (yes…river) surfer from Munich.
There is an excellent Panaderia (bakery) across from the Buena Vida, who bakes great treats and wholesome bread daily
All of the cantinas in Santa Catalina close their doors at 10 and this is tightly enforced. Anything deemed to be in the tourism business may serve until midnight. Drinks start at $1 at the cantinas and $2 at the tourism places.
Transporting open containers is allowed, but consuming them in public is not. Be careful, the police are bored - look out for them driving around on their quad bike.
The town has no hospital, doctor, or even a pharmacy.
Although you won't get malaria from the mosquitos in Santa Catalina, they are still relentless and walking around with hundreds of bites can be a major drag. Sand flies (chitras) are rarer but can inflict quite painful stings. If you invest in one piece of personal care product for your trip, make it good insect repellant.
If you plan to take a dip into the open waters of the Pacific a wetsuit is highly recommended. The water is warm enough (unless you're diving), but the larger concern is these string-like jellyfish which some people discover they're violently allergic to.
Pack appropriately. There is a brand new hospital ten minutes from Santa Catalina towards Sona. Visits to specialists will require a trip to Santiago, another hour further still.
The town is extremely close-knit and serious crime is unheard of. No one has bars on their windows unlike many other Central American countries.
There is the occasional petty theft, so the usual precautions apply.
Drug dealers are few and far between, and are usually run our of town by the locals. The police take drug enforcement very seriously, so don't be lighting up in public.
The townspeople, including the police, do aggressively cat-call women which takes the usual Panamanian form of hissing. Women do best to just ignore these advances, as responding appears to simply encourage their behavior.
Take the bus to Sona - as of January 2014 it leaves 6 times a day, at 6:15am, 7am, 8am, 10:20am, 1:15pm and 3:30pm. The cost of this 1.5hour bus is a rather steep US$4.65. Once in Sona you can take a bus from the same terminal to Panama City (about 5hours, more depending on traffic) - departure times are 1am, 4:30am, 9am, 10:30am, 1:30pm and 4pm, or walk 5minutes up the hill to catch one of the frequent buses to Santiago de Veraguas (1hour, US$2.10), from where you can change to numerous buses - for David, Panama City and elsewhere.
There is also direct shuttle services to Boquete (5hrs, $30, march 2017) and even Bocas de Toro (8hrs, $60, march 2017).